Many, many things a brewin’ here at Swim Pony HQ.
I know I promised you Cross Pollination would unveil here today but this weekend was just too terribly full of fantastic awesomeness and I need just a couple more days. So Wednesday it will be! (This time I promise, for real…)
Awesome Lady Squad is in high-level action mode! We had the first meeting to for the Awesome Lady Lady-festo last night and I am humbled and awed at the fantastic minds of Philadelphia creators. Look for updates on that soon!
Today, however, I thought I’d share something new. While much of our attention in this space has been on shedding light on things I’d like to change, I think it’s also worth pointing out the amazing artists who are already modeling the kind of work that ALREADY gives voice and space to women creators (and gaining a stellar artistic rep at the same time). So every once in a while I’ll be asking some questions of folks doing just that so they can share how they are successfully getting their work into the world in a way that the Awesome Lady Squad commends.
Today, get a bit inside the mind of Applied Mechanics. I chatted a bit with Becky Wright (a good friend) to find out more. But first! A pretty picture of their work to entice you:
1) How does gender parity and awareness of women in theater play a role in selecting your material?
We are a very collaborative company, founded by women, with majority female members and an alternative-model labor-sharing administrative structure. Every piece we’ve ever made has come from an idea or a spark of inspiration from a company member, so in a sense the work is always reflective of the concerns of the group. I think it’s safe to say that most of us identify as feminists and that our artistic motors have been shaped by our experiences as women in the world, as female artists—and, for our one male company member, his experiences as a gay male artist. Collaborative art-making involves such intense processes of interrogation, exploration and reflection—so I’d say, overall, gender and female-artist awareness play a major role in everything we do.
To speak more specifically, we’re currently working on a piece inspired by [Russian feminist art/punk activist group] Pussy Riot. This idea came from two company members who were following their story particularly closely at the time of their arrest. We all intuitively leaped on this seed of an idea; as we began research and exploration (the early stages of our development process) we quickly discovered that a big reason why Pussy Riot’s story and the questions it brings up resonated with us so deeply is specifically because they are female artists. Their story is our story. And they have done these powerful, dangerous, earth-rocking things with their position as female artists, claiming that position as one of profound subversive power and gigantic imaginative and radical influence. Our piece has expanded to encompass questions about contemporary feminism, its oppositional relationship to global capitalism, protest art, 21st century resistance, and the socio-historical qualities of a moment when artists’ voices are politically important. These questions are close to our hearts and central to our ongoing artistic project.
One thing that’s been really nice about working on this piece, the first of ours that takes on explicitly political content, is that it’s made us realize that we’ve actually been dealing with these questions all along: all of our past pieces in some way engage questions of power and control, allocation of resources, society’s power to shape identity, and the possibility of communities to affect change. These questions are central to feminism.
Again, some brief specifics: in our recent piece Vainglorious, a large-scale historical fantasia about Napoleonic Europe, we had a woman playing Napoleon and a man playing Josephine (and lots of other cross-gendered casting, mostly in the form of women playing men, throughout the world of the piece.) While we made this choice based purely on company members desires and personal qualities, we had to recognize after the fact that the choice “says something” about gender. Embracing this allowed us a deeper exploration of the power plays and politics of that piece. We’ve also made pieces with trans characters (Portmanteau), de-gendered characters (Some Other Mettle), and always always make pieces with strong, unusual female characters. It’s worth mentioning, too, that our performers create the characters they play—so the women of Applied Mechanics, through engaging in our group authorship process, have a huge amount of agency in their theatrical and artistic output.
In all these ways, I’d say gender parity and women in theater are at the heart of our material.
A tiny post-script: I think there was a while in there where some of us in the group would worry about not having “enough male energy” in the company. And then at a certain point we were like, “why are we worried about this?” It’s amazing how pervasive the norms of the dominant culture can be.
2) Does this inform your working and administrative structures in any way?
It does, actually. We have worked really, really hard to cultivate an egalitarian working model that embraces all participants, distributes company labor, and values communication and consensus over hierarchy. For me, this is a self-consciously anti-patriarchal model. It looks at the ways most theaters run, the received narratives created in overwhelmingly large part by straight white men (and thus designed to reward male-socialized habits and aesthetics) and says: we reject that, and reject the goal of gaining access to it, and we claim the space to work in another way. This is often difficult, and certainly does require a great deal of energy, presence, and mindfulness from all company members, but the result is that we have this thing, this company, that allows us a sense of shared ownership while granting us all agency and a supportive artistic home.
3) Do you know your statistics (number of actors, directors, designers, etc) in terms of representation? Can you share them?
For several years, the company consisted of five women and two men. It has now shifted to consist of six women and one man.
Of the 32 “outside” actors we’ve hired in our history, 21 have been women and 11 have been men.
Of the 4 guest designers we’ve hired (to work with company designer Maria Shaplin) three have been women and one has been a man.
Of the 5 stage management/production assistants we’ve hired, four have been women and one has been a man.
There are also an assorted bunch of folks we’ve hired for one-off work/labor calls; this is an estimate, but I think on those we’ve been about half and half women and men.
4) What would you say to a female artist feeling discouraged about her place in the arts community?
It can take a while to find your people. Don’t worry: you’ll find them. All of my collaborators I met through working other gigs, going to see stuff, or coincidences born of just doing my thing. It makes a huge difference to have people you love to work with. It makes it easier to feel like, at least in some respects, you have your own place and your own community.
Keep your eyes open for folks you admire and are interested in working with or for. It’s not that hard to track people down in this town, and it never hurts to ask for a coffee—or an assistantship.
And I know this will sound a bit “follow your bliss,” but—follow your bliss! Don’t wait for permission to make the art you want to make. Do what you think is cool. Claim the space to do it.
Art life is a weird life without a clear path. There is so much bushwhacking to do, and so much stumbling. I think men and women tend to be socialized differently, and it can often be harder for women to access the kind of assertiveness and entitlement that’s so useful sometimes in getting gigs and attention and carving out a niche. But I also absolutely think that self-doubt and failure and periods of frustration are natural parts of the artists’ life. Finding a way to accept those stages of the cycle without being too self-punishing can make it way easier to fight the necessary battles—whether that’s about accessing particular kinds of assertiveness or asserting other ways of working.
5) Anything else you’d like to add?
When Maria Shaplin and I started this company, it was because there was art that we wanted to exist that didn’t exist yet. We realized we could make it exist by making it ourselves, and we realized no one was going to give us permission to do it. So we had to just do it. So we did it. And we were incredibly fortunate (still are) to have access to a community of brilliant collaborative artists who were down to do it with us. The company, which grew out of that initial project, consists of the people who stuck around and were excited about working on the artistic and organizational experiments that Applied Mechanics has come to pursue. I don’t think that the experience of wanting to make art and having to give ourselves permission to do it happened because we’re women (it happened because we’re artists) but I think the lesson of claiming space and asserting new working models is vital to the feminist project. I’m not saying it isn’t a worthy battle to fight for access to existing systems, but I also say it is a necessary battle to fight for new systems. For me, this goes for both artistic concerns (structural, as well as aesthetic) and organizational models.
You can check out Applied Mechanics bio below or their website for more info: http://www.appliedmechanics.us/
Applied Mechanics is director Rebecca Wright, designer Maria Shaplin, and performers Jessica Hurley, Thomas Choinacky, Kristen Bailey, and Mary Tuomanen, and stage manager Bayla Rubin. This ensemble of artists collaborates to make work that challenges conventional ideas of theatrical space, narrative, and performer-audience relationship: they create visual landscapes for the audience to wander through, and multiple intersecting storylines for them to choose how to watch. Their plays are immersive, multi-sensory, and choose-your-own adventure. Their process is collaborative, democratic, and based on a commitment to organizational and artistic innovation.
Applied Mechanics’ pieces include the apartment plays Selkie and Ses Voyages Sauvages; It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca (Fringe 2009) which took over a Fishtown Bar; the invasion play Portmanteau (Fringe 2010) which, following its Philadelphia premiere, toured from Texas to Louisville to Maine; the dystopic environmental piece Overseers (Fringe 2011); and the large scale historical fantasia Vainglorious: Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution, which involved a cast of 26 Philadelphia actors and which remounted to great critical acclaim in the Philadelphia International Festival of Art (PIFA) in April 2013.